So we’re down to the final two of in the latest iteration of Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.” Ironically, I believe the show has a great deal to teach about the law of the workplace. The show highlights the at-will employment rule, and emphasizes common misunderstandings about the extent of workers’ job security.
Donald Trump’s cavalier method of dismissing his would-be underlings at the end of the show is distressing and troubling. In real life, being fired is a traumatic event. The loss of a job almost inevitably results in financial instability and often a diminishment of one’s professional and personal identities. To see a firing enacted in such a harsh and casual way should be emotionally difficult to watch. Yet the boardroom discussions and Trump’s catch phrase apparently are among the most popular aspects of the show.
When I’ve asked people – especially my students – why the firing on “The Apprentice” appealed to them, a few themes emerged. Some said that they empathized with Trump, because he was dismissing those who had performed poorly. Others, in a display of schadenfreude, admitted that they were happy to see others dismissed, just as long as it wasn’t them in that situation.
As Professor Pauline Kim (Wash U) has empirically documented, many non-unionized workers (and, presumably, many ‘Apprentice’ watchers) do not fully realize the extent of their own job insecurity. Often, people believe that if they show up at the office and do their jobs, absent any obvious difficulties with management or economic downturns, their employment will last. They believe what they think the boss has promised them: continued employment for hard work. But that is not the law.
Indeed, while it may be good management practice to document reasons for firing someone, the law does not require it. Under the at-will employment rule — the law in all jurisdictions but Montana — an employer may fire an employee for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all. Although federal and state anti-discrimination statutes, whistle-blower laws, and other legal provisions put restraints on an employer’s ability to use a bad reason to fire an employee, the underlying at-will regime remains substantially unchanged. The reality of the worker’s bargain looks a lot more like Trump’s deal.
Altogether, reality TV’s portrayal of employment presents a realistically bleak picture for workers. You can work hard, but you still might get fired without notice.